Offshore drilling faces increasing political hurdles after massive spill

Plans for expanded offshore drilling are facing growing political threats amid the worsening Gulf of Mexico oil spill that has begun reaching vulnerable coastal areas.

Capitol Hill opponents have taken the offensive in recent days, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said flatly on Friday that Senate climate and energy legislation would be “dead on arrival” if it includes measures that enable increased drilling.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Friday that he is "alarmed" by the environmental effect of the spill and that it will be taken into account in Senate energy debates.

"This terrible event will, undoubtedly, require us to re-examine how we extract our nation's offshore energy resources and will have to be taken into consideration with any legislation that proposes to open new areas to development," he said.

Senior White House adviser David Axelrod said Friday morning that the Obama administration would not act on its plans to allow expanded drilling until a thorough investigation of the Gulf spill is complete. 

“No domestic drilling in new areas is going to go forward until there is an adequate review of what happened here,” he said on ABC’s "Good Morning America."

While any drilling in new areas wouldn’t begin for years, the comment underscores the fast-growing pressure on advocates of increased domestic development. 

Obama on Friday said he continues to support domestic oil production, but only if it is done responsibly. 

Despite increased criticism from environmentalists, Obama said he believes "that domestic oil production is an important" part of a comprehensive energy strategy. 

Obama also highlighted the federal response to the disaster, noting he has directed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to find out how the explosion happened and report to the White House within 30 days. 

"I've ordered Secretary Salazar to conduct a thorough review of this incident and report back to me in 30 days on what, if any, additional precautions and technologies should be required to prevent accidents like this from happening again," he said. "And we're going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards. We've also dispatched teams to the Gulf to inspect all deepwater rigs and platforms to address safety concerns."

The president said there are more than 1,900 federal response personnel on the ground and more than 300 vessels and aircraft engaged. 

Until the Gulf disaster, drilling advocates had enjoyed increased political power, in part because drilling is widely seen as part of the recipe for winning 60 Senate votes for a compromise climate change and energy bill.

But in recent days environmental groups that want Capitol Hill action have issued new calls for the White House and Congress to back off plans to promote expanded development.

“In the wake of this disaster, expanded offshore oil drilling should be a nonstarter. Instead, the Senate should focus on reducing oil use to protect our security, create jobs and protect our coasts,” said Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Authors of Senate climate and energy legislation — John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — have planned to include offshore language, including measures that give additional coastal states a generous slice of the leasing and royalty revenue.

The spill could hinder a push for expanded Gulf of Mexico drilling in particular. 

The White House needs congressional approval for expanded leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where a large no-drilling buffer off Florida's coast is still in place until mid-2022.

The White House plan calls for keeping rigs at least 125 miles off Florida's Gulf shores.

But broad energy legislation approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year would shrink Florida's no-drilling buffer to 45 miles in the Gulf, and would allow rigs even closer in a gas-rich area called the Destin Dome.

Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has called for the Senate to consider that bill this year — without or without additional climate change provisions.

“The provision of the Senate Energy Committee bill that would open up Florida’s Gulf Coast could subject their coastal economy to the same damage that Louisiana faces,” Weiss said.

But if drilling foes have it their way, the Gulf disaster would make it harder to advance any climate and energy bill in the Senate, because pulling back on drilling could cost the support of Republicans.

Meanwhile, four New Jersey Democratic lawmakers sent Obama a new letter Friday calling for reconsideration of Interior Department plans to allow oil-and-gas leasing off the coast of mid-Atlantic states. The plan doesn’t call for drilling off New Jersey’s coast, but the lawmakers nonetheless say the plan would threaten their state if a spill occurred to its south.

“In the wake of the tragic accident, loss of life and pollution in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, we are even more steadfastly opposed to any offshore drilling that could imperil the environment or economy of coastal New Jersey,” states the letter from Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez and Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. and Rush Holt.

“While we appreciate the White House’s announcement that no additional offshore drilling will be authorized until a full investigation of the accident is complete, we urge you to go further and reverse your decision on proposed new offshore oil and gas drilling for the Outer Continental Shelf,” they added.

Sam Youngman contributed to this article.